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Pegman: Google's Weird Art Project Hidden In Plain Sight

That little orange icon that tells you where you are in Google Maps has taken on many forms: male, female, tofu, eyeball. A history of Pegman.

Posted on April 11, 2013, at 1:32 p.m. ET

Pegman, that featureless orange figure: we know him as the moveable marker on Google Maps, and as our gatekeeper to Street View. We probably take him for granted. But Pegman hasn't always been Pegman.

Pegman's origin is fundamentally a design story: how do you connect, with an icon, the 2D top-down Google Maps experience with the sensation of ground-level, 360-degree Street View. It's meant to solve what's called the Subway Effect — that jarring disorientation you feel when you emerge from a station not knowing where you are or what direction you are facing. Google designers added the "yellow brick road" lines down the centers of the streets, which helped. But they needed something more.

Their first idea: eyeballs.

The first problem was that you couldn't tell which way the eyeball was facing. They tried adding an arrow, which helped a little.

But, really, it came down to the ick factor. "It was weird to pick up an eyeball," says Andy Szybalski, one of the original Pegman designers, who now works on Android. "It felt squishy and it just felt wrong. You don't want to be throwing an eyeball. Should they have a bouncing effect?" Szybalski decided to call in the help of Ryan Germick, who now leads the Doodle Team.

Then they decided they needed a figure. So they created Peg-woman:

Why a girl? "It was my righteous feminism," jokes Germick. "The assumption of why it would not be a woman is a more relevant question — gotcha, media!" But seriously, with her curves, outfit and hair it was easy to tell even with a quick glance from a distance, which direction she was facing. Having an icon with 3D characteristics that rotate was a huge step forward.

What life could have been like if we had Peg-woman:

But there was another problem:

Just as with Google Doodles, the designers have found that the more the illustration looks like a real person, the more distracting it can be. "Once you associate a character with traits that are discernable, people start recognizing them as looking like their cousin or something, and asking, 'why is that person there?'" says Germick.

So the pendulum swung in the other direction:

They stripped away discernable physical characteristics of a real person, and took the vague humanoid approach. Boxy but good.

They played around with his personality:

They called him Tofu Man:

They tried changing his color. (Sautéed tofu man?):

They tried, blue, purple, white, green, before settling on orange. "Orange was a non-partial color," says Google. "No ethnicity is orange. Anyone can be orange." Or, perhaps, orange could be anybody.

They experimented with visual metaphors for capturing imagery, looking, and pointing:

Instead of an arrow, they tried a flashlight:

He could have looked like this:

They played around with how he moved about, too:

"We thought, 'What if you can pick up Pegman and then he is just dangling like Gumby,'" says Germick. "He could be swaying and looking like he is in peril. You could play God and pick him up and move him around."

But then he gradually became simpler and simpler:

"It's like a fine haiku. We are poets," Germick deadpans. "We pare down to the bare elements that need to be there to communicate." After all, they only have about 32 pixels to work with.

Finally, Pegman was born:

View this video on YouTube


The demo video, Google's first viral YouTube video, stars Germick himself.

View this video on YouTube


Of course, as per Google tradition, the "Easter eggs" started before the product was even launched:

At certain locations within Google maps, Pegman will transform into other characters. "I was jamming," says Germick. "He is golden. He can suit up in anything. He is like a mannequin you can dress up."

"Easter eggs" are ephemeral and often seasonal. The ones below no longer exist. Some didn't even make it past the drawing table. "We believe in the serendipity, of limited time offer, of here today, and gone tomorrow," says Germick.

Back in the day (i.e. at launchtime) Pegman was a hippie if placed on Berkeley's Telegraph Ave:

He was drawn to look like Ryan's dad, but the idea was a Cal alum intern.

The frog head was based on a Halloween costume Ryan's mom made in the 1970s:

Unfortunately it was never launched

That first Halloween, Pegman became a witch:

And flew on a broomstick when moved:

There was a Peg-Mom for Mother's Day:

(But it never launched)

For April Fool's 2009, he became Japanese television character Gachapin:

On St Patrick's Day, a leprechaun who rode a rainbow beam:

They even celebrated a wedding with a Pegcouple:

Contradicting rumors that the lucky groom was Michael Weiss-Malik, who proposed to his wife using Street View, we're told it was a surprise for Stephen Chau, a Google Maps project manager, who was getting married in San Francisco.

There are other Easter eggs still out there:

Pegman becomes an astronaut when you move into street view at the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, and a Lego figure at Legoland in California. He's a tennis player at the USTA stadium, Wimbledom and at the French Open. He is a penguin in Antarctica. He's a downhill skiier at Whistler Blackcomb Mountain. According to Google, there are some undiscovered ones out there, too.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.